Letters and Papers from Prison

by Dietrich Bonhoeffer
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Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 569

In postwar Europe, Bonhoeffer’s letters came as a refreshing drink to people who had been beaten down by the failure of democracy and capitalism in the 1930’s, the destruction and loss of life of World War II, the evil revealed in the Holocaust, the establishment of Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, and the dangers and sacrifices inherent in the Cold War. Liberal philosophy, traditional Christianity, Fascist nationalism and racism, and Soviet Communism were all gods that had failed. Bonhoeffer’s affirmation of life in this world and his call for personal commitment and Christian action appealed to many concerned with building a new future for Europe. The dramatic circumstances in which Letters and Papers from Prison was written provided hope and purpose to those who had already suffered greatly and who would otherwise become victims of despair.

For the United States, World War II was a time of triumph that validated for most Americans their national institutions, including the churches. Although badly battered, Great Britain and its institutions had also stood the test of World War II. During the 1950’s in Great Britain and America, Bonhoeffer’s ideas were known primarily to those who were alert to theological trends.

In the 1960’s a new generation arose in the United States which questioned traditional institutions, ideas, and life-styles, especially as the Vietnam War cast discredit on those who led the nation. Similar attitudes arose in Great Britain as postwar austerity ended and emphasis turned to consumer goods and self-expression. Films and rock music became the principal modes of expression of the new spirit.

In the English-speaking world, Bonhoeffer had his greatest influence in the 1960’s. In 1963 a remarkably successful work of popular theology, Honest to God, by John A. T. Robinson, Bishop of Woolwich, gave wide currency to Bonhoeffer’s ideas. Ved Mehta, a writer for The New Yorker magazine, picked up the theme in The New Theologian (1965), in which Bonhoeffer was the principal figure. A revised and expanded edition of Letters and Papers from Prison appeared in 1967.

Bonhoeffer’s call for Christian commitment outside the established institutions struck a sympathetic chord with those who felt ignored, disdained, or betrayed by established society. Young people were adopting life-styles that emphasized personal freedom and individual fulfillment, rejecting traditional Christian morality as stuffy and confining. Bonhoeffer’s affirmative attitude toward life in this world and his emphasis on a Christianity which was involved in the needs of contemporary society were welcomed by those who were uncomfortable with traditional doctrines and worship and a morality based on authority.

Critics of Bonhoeffer argue that his importance was a result more of his life and martyrdom than of the originality of his ideas. Letters and Papers from Prison has been criticized as stimulating but unsystematic and contradictory. Some theologians view his ideas as a potpourri of the theology of the 1920’s and 1930’s. Christian Fundamentalists regard a Christianity which ignores the role of God in the world as preposterous. Partly because of such criticisms, the influence of Bonhoeffer has waned considerably since the 1960’s.

Valid as these criticisms may be, Letters and Papers from Prison has a timeless appeal. The tragic circumstances in which Bonhoeffer wrote give the work a powerfully dramatic context. The lasting importance of the work, however, is derived from Bonhoeffer’s ability to touch the soul of the reader through his maturity, humanity, love of life, and intense Christian commitment.

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